Sorcerer

Sorcerer

I’ve been anticipating William Friedkin’s Sorcerer for quite some time now, as I heard about it being a remake of Wages of Fear shortly after I had watched that 1953 Henri-Georges Clouzot classic almost exactly three years ago.

As far as the temporal position in Friedkin’s canon, this was when he was at the peak of his directorial powers. The deservedly lauded The Exorcist scared audiences of the day out of their wits, and sometimes their lunches, and made a whopping $440M for Universal on a high, but not unheard of $12M budget. This followed the similarly critical and box-office success of The French Connection from a few years previous that made $500M on a miniscule $1.M budget.

You think he would have had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. Well, apparently not. Despite Clouzot’s original being regarded as a well-loved masterpiece, the studio wasn’t that anxious to open the floodgate of dollars. The budget afforded him about the same as The Exorcist.

The first major difference between Sorcerer and Wages of Fear was that Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green decided to cornicles the individual misfortunes that lead to of our major characters fleeing to South America, and left without means to return home. He guides us around backstory with equal aplomb as how he introduced us to essential story elements and characters in The Exorcist. I’m of two minds about this decision. Although each character’s vignette is enthralling, and both keeps the tempo high, and minimizes the amount of time needed in the town before the mission begins, I think I prefer Clouzot’s approach. Although slower out of the gate, there is more mystery as to why this rag-tag group is hostage, and the slowly playing out their backstories creates more tension and intrigue in the first act.

I like me some Roy Scheider. He was brilliant in All That Jazz, iconic in Jaws, and I could even stand him completely re-imagining Dr. Heywood Floyd in 2010. I wasn’t a fan, though, of him in The French Connection, his previous association with Friedkin. Same with Sorcerer. While he did an admirable Job as our lead Jackie Scanlon / 'Juan Dominguez, when I think of Steve McQueen or Robert Mitcham in that role, who were Friedkin’s first choices, I see a much a better fit.

For me, Tangerine dream was a bad and dated choice. Not necessarily because of synth … as I still like Wendy Carlos’s Switched On Bach in A Clockwork Orange, but it’s high tech futuristic sound aided the visuals, but here, in a natural setting, it was distracting. I suspect if I watched Chariots of Fire I may feel the same about Vangelis, although I’m still perfectly fine with him in Blade Runner, perhaps, again, because it describes a futuristic setting.

I also didn’t think the ending nearly as poetic as Wages of Fear, but, it integrated well with the other elements of the story, and was a fitting and satisfying finale.

Friedkin well knew that the star of the show was going to be that rickety bridge scene, and he more than delivers. The original Wages of Fear version was tense and gripping, but here it’s amped up to a whole new level. I was glued to the rain-soaked screen wondering how in the hell he pulled it off. The tension was off the scale, and the visuals supurb.

Unfortunately, as I read later, this scene was the first real harbinger of the doom that was to befall the film. They built this complex structure, that had to both look rickety but yet be safe and flexible for shooting. Well, once completed, the torrent river in the Dominican Republic that it spanned went completely dry due to a drought. A new location had to be found, and the bridge dismantled and moved; this time to Mexico. Unbelievably, that river dried up, too, forcing Friedkin to re-think the entire shot and use platforms and with legions of crew with fire hoses, wind machines, and helicopters. Needless to say, this made the budget swell to over double it’s original size, and made the studio very unhappy. To boot, Friedkin, who had a rather high opination of himself at this point, demanded re-shoots. The feuding with the studio, and the outsized budget overruns wasn’t really a motivator for them to promote the film.

Two production decisions that Friedkin had made further sealed the films fate. While scouting for authentic looking trucks, he noticed they had ‘names’ painted on them. One of those names was ‘Sorcerer’. Friedkin thought this an apt title, and a sly wink to his previous film, The Exorcist. Well, the movie going public didn’t see it that way. They were expecting another Exorcist, and were served up something entirely different. The second decision that alienated audiences was the fact that a good deal of the first act was subtitled, leading to patron walk-outs complaining that they didn’t think they were going to see a ‘foreign language film’.

But then a final bit of bad timing sealed Sorcers fate. It was released co-incidentally with a little sleeper film. Star Wars.

Together these events sealed Sorcerers fate. It was a financial disaster. The studios no longer trusted their golden boy, and the golden boy was put off his lunch; not really recovering artistically until years later with his low budget collaborations with playwright Tracy Letts.

Like many flops, Sorcerer has been critically re-accessed in recent years, deservedly so. Many I’ve spoken to here on LB prefer it to Clouzot’s original. It’s a fine actioner, and a very well crafted film that shows off Friedkin at his peak.

It just ain't no Wages of Fear.

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